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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Amazon’s mystifying paper catalogs

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

[This post is adapted from an item from the November Six Colors members-only newsletter. Become a subscriber today to support the site and get access to our monthly newsletter, a members-only podcast, and more.]

When I was a kid, I loved, loved the Sears Wish Book. It was a catalog full of toys and games and pajamas and other stuff kids might want to put on their gift-request lists. I can still smell the ink on the paper of the Wish Book. I want that Star Wars toy and this video game and, no, I don’t want that pillow, c’mon mom, who wants a pillow for Christmas?

Clearly someone at Amazon has been thinking of the power of colorful print catalogs to promote products, because last month, we got an 89-page catalog from Amazon in our mailbox, titled “Play Together: Amazon’s Ultimate Wish List for Kids!”

Play Together is an attempt to replicate the old Wish Book and the somewhat more modern Toys R Us catalog. Instead of circling things with a pen, you can get out the Amazon app and hold the camera over any product to have it automatically recognized. This catalog is beautiful, and fun to leaf through, and Amazon obviously hopes it will drive enough sales to make it all worthwhile.

Problem: The Play Together catalog is delightfully full of toys for kids from toddlers up to preteens. My children are 18 and 15.

We live in a world where we can legitimately be concerned that Target knows you’re pregnant before you do based on changes in your buying habits in its stores. Big data is everywhere, and it’s invasive. Most of us tech savvy people would list invasive collection of personal data high on our list of problems facing the tech industry and society at large.

I take the fact that Amazon’s Play Together catalog is sitting on my desk right now as a hint that while these tech giants are collecting an awful lot of data, they’re not (yet?) consistently using it well.

If you looked at my family’s buying history for the past two decades, you could come up with a pretty good estimate for the ages of our children based on what we bought and when we bought it. So why did Amazon waste its money sending us a catalog targeted at kids that are the wrong age?

Yes, the catalog is addressed to my wife, who occasionally buys something for her job as a children’s librarian. It’s possible that some innocuous purchase in the last year was enough to put us on Amazon’s list. But if that’s true, isn’t that just more evidence that Amazon is doing a bad job of using the massive amount of data it has collected on us? Surely a single purchase here or there isn’t enough to override the mountain of data that says we’ve got a couple of teenagers.

I don’t know if this is good news or bad news, but I think it’s worth noting that just because these days it’s standard practice to aggregate as much information about customers as possible doesn’t mean that information is used, or used well. It’s a good idea to be wary that your information may be collected and used against you—but will it?

A week later, we got another Amazon catalog in the mail. This one was called Holiday Together, and featured clothing and accessories targeted at adults and families. I thought it was a much better match, until I looked at the mailing label, which read, “Tiff Arment c/o Jason Snell.”

This summer Tiff Arment shipped some La Croix directly to my house for an episode of the Top Four podcast. Why in the world would Amazon consider some fizzy water shipments enough data to decide that this alternate shipping address is the one they should send a catalog to? Did Tiff’s purchase habits commingle with my zip code and address to create a single, perfect target for Holiday Together?

Forget it, it’s Amazontown. But keep this in mind: Maybe Amazon isn’t nearly as smart as we (and they) think it is.

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